Why Microsoft's Cityman and Talkman devices are more than what they appear

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For the past week or so, pockets of the internet have been a blaze about the recent surfacing of ‘official’ Microsoft renders for the upcoming flagship smartphones. From tech enthusiasts sounding off in comment sections on their favorite tech blogs to avid Microsoft devotees and detractors mincing words in volatile Reddit threads, everyone seems to have an opinion on Microsoft’s rumored devices.

I skipped around the internet over the weekend attempting to quench my insatiable thirst for more information about the devices. The journey was two-fold as it also inflated a confirmation bias I had developed regarding the proposed flagship offerings from Microsoft. I personally thought the renders were half-assed and lackluster. While many of the mainstream tech sites regurgitated the photos and posted bullet point spec sheets, I found much deeper discussions about the devices and predictions on Microsoft’s future in the comment sections.

Judging by what I read, Microsoft should be apprehensive about releasing these phones.

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Official Microsoft Cityman/Talkman flagship renders

However, taking a step back from my long-standing involvement with the Windows Phone ecosystem, I realistically asked myself, are Microsoft’s upcoming Cityman and Talkman the flagship devices Windows 10 Mobile needs?

Yes! (in Christian Bale’s Batman voice)

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Lumia 640 and 640XL unveiling at Microsoft Store

Similar to other die hard Windows Phone fans, my first reaction to the renders was to ‘kill it with fire.’ When the images first posted, what I initially perceived was an insult to both my sensibilities and the patience I awarded Microsoft as a fan. It seemed that after watching countless flagships from Apple, Sony, LG, HTC, and Samsung pass me by, Microsoft finally got around to offering me a Lumia 640 and 640XL with a camera bump. My rage was quickly washed over by a sudden sinking realization that once again, Microsoft over promised and under delivered, and I had fallen for it, yet again.

However, after reading a couple hundred or so comments all ringing the same bells of “it looks like a low-end device” or “Microsoft is dropping the ball” I began looking for deviations in the conversation. Almost on the turn of a dime, I started looking for dissenters just to see what counter-arguments they could muster for the lifeless and seemingly soul crushing renders Microsoft had to offer. It was in the few counter points being offered that I made the realization, that the Cityman/Talkman devices are the phones that Microsoft and Windows Phone fans need, right now.

[pullquote align="left" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]"with each new phone or operating system update, Microsoft traded one set of unresolved issues for another"[/pullquote]

Over the past couple of years, Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform has bled users from a thousand tiny cuts, many self-inflicted by the company. Without apps, users left or avoided the Windows Phone platform. Without iteratively building on flagship designs or concepts, users left the Windows Phone platform. Without a single representative device on every carrier, or equal international distribution, users left the platform. Without a cohesive software strategy or operating system feature parity with its own platform and others, users left the Windows platform. Without a cohesively branded marketing effort or device specific story, users left the Windows platform. The list goes on and with each new phone or operating system update, Microsoft traded one set of unresolved issues for another.

The Rationale

Sailfish operating system with card UI

The way I’m beginning to rationalize the Cityman/Talkman renders is by accepting that Microsoft has missed the smartphone behavioral cycle. Unfortunately, Microsoft was slow to offer a competing product when users were shaping new behaviors around using smartphones. As Microsoft raced behind iOS and Android to provide feature parity, smartphone users were developing smartphone behavioral navigations and etiquette on other platforms. For instance, the whack-a-mole app paradigm commonly used by iOS and most Android developers is a seemingly impenetrable learned behavior. Most, if not all attempts to reroute user behavior away from excessively jumping in and out of apps to navigate an OS have all but fallen into obscurity. Another example, the idea of modernizing the web has taken a backseat to the buffet-style native app selection users have grown accustomed to.

Similar to how Windows helped change the behavior of personal computing and interacting with GUI interfaces rather than command prompts, iOS and Android are changing how people use smartphones. Sadly, Microsoft has been forced to sit on the lawn and listened to the muffled sounds coming from within the house party. However, Cityman/Talkman offer Microsoft the chance to grab people’s attention when they inevitably leave the party.

Ironically, I see Cityman/Talkman renders as the physical manifestation of Windows 10. Similar to how Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 devices offer mirrored disjointed representations of one another, so too does Windows 10 and Cityman/Talkman renders. Arguably, Windows 8.1 was about late bolted-on additions and repacking previously shunned paradigms in Windows. The continued use of colorful tiles, mixed with a half-hearted return to the desktop was the PC story for Windows 8.1. On the mobile side, brightly colored phones adding basic and long overdue features, many of which contradicted the early spirit of Windows Phone was the story for much of 8 and 8.1’s development cycle. While Windows 8’s poor reception may have had a small part in dragging down Windows Phone 8’s adoption, Windows 10 may have a much larger part in the adoption of Windows Phone 10.

The idea of Windows 10 isn’t so much to pretty up the operating system as much as Microsoft is trying to change the way people interact with it. Understandably, the company is smoothing out animations and redoing flat design where necessary help modernize the Windows platform for casual users. However, items such as Cortana, user feedback submissions, default encryption, bundled software apps, Windows Hello, and One-Microsoft account IDs are essential in the way Microsoft supports the reshaping of user engagement in Windows 10.

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Windows 10 and Windows Phone 10 with Universal Apps

Judging from the Cityman/Talkman renders, that’s exactly what the two devices are offering as well. Neither of the two devices are showstopping works of art. However, their physical simplicity will act as a canvas for new user behaviors through cross-platform exposure.

Hardware, Software, Accessories

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Windows Phones at AT&T carrier pricing

Beginning with the hardware, it looks like Microsoft is taking a similar approach to developing something created by the request of users. Understandably, die-hard Windows Phone users may have been spoiled by fan created renders that left many salivating on the possibilities of the next flagship. Unfortunately, reality tends to be less satisfying than fantasy. However, hardware-wise, both Cityman, and Talkman offer the hardware users have been pitching for with each subsequent Lumia release. From built-in Qi wireless charging to an Iris Scanner, both Cityman and Talkman offer an uncompromising spec list. Future proofing devices with a robust spec list affords Microsoft a longer window of opportunity to deliver a refined software experience. Cityman/Talkman users will also benefit from a stacked spec list with the ability to hold onto their device for a longer period. As contract subsidies are changing (at least in North America), upgrading phones becomes a bit more of research intensive experience. Rather than mechanical up-front price drops for yearly contracts, phones will now need to prove their longevity in favor of reduced monthly payments for many smartphone owners. Having a phone built for the future such as the Cityman/Talkman, will be a compliment to a  changing behavior in smartphone shopping.

Much of the conversation currently surrounding Cityman/Talkman is in regards to the hardware or the ‘looks’ of the device. Perhaps, two of the most important aspects these new devices is being overshadowed or lost in knee-jerk reactions and conversations.

Chiefly, the software. As a Windows 10 Mobile Insider, I encourage armchair designers to refocus their frustrations and verbal acumen towards the upcoming release of Windows 10 Mobile software. Microsoft and Nokia arguably made one of the best competing phablets of 2013 with the Lumia 1520.

However, the device was hobbled by the Windows Phone 8 and subsequent Windows 8.1 user experiences. The smartphone powerhouse quickly became relegated to the what-could-have-been section of conversations. With Windows Phone 8 and 8.1 being predominantly a portrait user experience, without stylus support or specialized software, the 6-inch real estate became a cumbersome detractor to the device for many. During the early phablet adopter stage, the Lumia 1520 was a missed opportunity, mainly due to its software. Ideally, Cityman and Talkman will avoid a similar fate. Windows 10 Mobile is tied to Windows 10 PC development.

Landscape settings in Windows 10 Mobile

Fortunately, for Windows Mobile fans much of Windows 10 responsive landscape orientation is being ported to the Cityman/Talkman devices enabling long overdue versatility for the operating system. For better or for worse, Windows 10 Mobile is shaping up to offer a more granular experience for smartphones. Like the Surface, a Cityman/Talkman device could offer a similarly powerful yet portable computing experience for users. As a Windows Phone fan, I’ve decided to stop harping on rounded corners, placement of flash modules on cameras and the use of polycarbonate, and rather demanding more Surface Pen-like integration in the software. As more people begin to use Windows 10 software, Windows 10 Mobile should run in stride with their experiences. Rather than forcing people to adhere to the segregation of user experiences due to hardware, Cityman/Talkman software could help reshape concepts around fluid computing. The Surface has begun chipping away at the walls of segregated computing, Cityman, and Talkman devices are poised to continue that effort.

Beyond the hardware and software Cityman and Talkman are sporting, it seems these devices are finally incorporating a useful ecosystem. Not to be mistaken with the commonly interpreted app paradigm; I’m referring to covers, stylus, device hubs, and other phone accessories. While they are only unconfirmed rumors at this point, we've heard of a slew of accessories specifically designed for the two devices. Surface Pro 3-like pens, smart covers to display Windows 10 Mobile notifications and USB Type-C powered docking stations for Continuum are allegedly being released within months of Cityman and Talkman’s debut. Prior to this news, the best Windows Phone users could hope for when it came to accessories was a rehashed One M8 or Galaxy smart cover. Worst yet, Windows Phone users are often left hoping the back of a third party accessory that reads ‘mobile’ rather than iOS and Android specific compatibility. As the smartphone becomes the mobile computing hub for most, its usefulness becomes more apparent in its ability to extend computing to peripherals. While Android is the most used mobile operating system, Apple has arguably been more successful in extending its single device into a varied 3rd party accessory ecosystem. As Windows 10 Mobile hitches its development to Windows 10, feature specific accessories and standards coming to Windows 10 like Continnum, and various WiFi and Bluetooth standards will make their way down to these more than capable devices.

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Lumia Cityman with Smart cover and Surface Pen

[pullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]"No matter how attractive the next Microsoft phone should be, behaviors around using smartphones have solidified around a couple of ecosystems."[/pullquote]

Living inside a tech bubble, some of us routinely compare tech to the other tech and search for trends and historical precedents to predict the future. It's the behavioral changes that gradually come out of nowhere and level current markets more often than not. Google changed behaviors with search, Apple did so with smartphone computing, Facebook and Amazon are doing it with social communication and retail shopping. As much as it saddens me to say, Microsoft effectively missed the smartphone behavioral train. No matter how attractive the next Microsoft phone should be, behaviors around using smartphones have solidified around a couple of ecosystems.

So, when asked, are Microsoft’s upcoming Cityman and Talkman the flagships Windows Mobile needs? My answer remains a confident yes.

When people eventually wrap their heads around how smartphones are being used rather than the designs or specs they hold, it's the behaviors that begin to surface to the conversation. What Cityman and Talkman may lack in looks, they are poised to make up in a user experiences that can help shape the next user behavior around mobile computing.

Both devices (dependent entirely on Windows 10 Mobile execution of course) are set up to offer powerful and productive computing across PCs, tablets, and phones. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices claimed to do just that, however, the reality was only surface deep. Since most Windows Phone 8 and 8.1 devices were under-powered and feature-deficient, shared experiences were done mainly through OneDrive and some small theme options in Windows. While it remains to be seen, Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile will share everything from kernel codes to app settings, as well as cloud-connected information across platforms. More importantly, Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile should be on very similar if not identical development paths. Being on the same development paths should see Cityman/Talkman become the recipients of Windows 10’s rapid release cycles. Iterative updates versus glacial pacing have been something sorely missed from every phase of Windows Phone development.

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